Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Review - Facebook Timeline (Sucks)

Last year I started my Facebook Writer's page.  It was pretty cool until something strange happened.  Facebook invented ... duh duh duh ... the Timeline!  At first I thought it was a neat feature, but then things started to bug me.  And then more things bugged me.  And now I just want to scream.

I mean, who comes up with this stuff?  Let's take a look at my page.  Here's what the top looks like from my point of view:

At the top, we see the Admin Panel.  This is useful as it keeps track of your notifications and some other choice stats.  Then comes what I like to call the "Take This Tour" box.  I love to ignore it.  There's also an "Add a Cover" button, which I haven't had time to look at yet.  If I happened to have an awesome panoramic picture, I could use that.  Only problem is, we humans tend to go up/down, not left/right.  Maybe I can find a picture of me lying on a bed.

Then I assume what comes next is what you would see if you went to my page.

First off, what's going on right where that red arrow is pointing?  There's something behind those boxes, but I can't see what it is.

Now this is where Timeline gets to be confusing.  First, under the banner stuff, we have the "Highlights" section.  I have no idea what this means.  It shows my friends who Like my page.  It looks like it shows my most recent post to the left (playing the piano).  To the right is something I wrote back in October last year.  Why it's there, I'll never know.  And there's my cousin's post right under it.  Hey Cous!  Your post may be immortalized in my Timeline!

Let's go further down the page...

It took me a while to realize that the line going down the middle is the "timeline."  The most recent posts are at the top, and later posts at the bottom.  But note how the boxes alternate between going to the left and right.  Wait--there's another name for this ... BUTTERFLY BALLOT.  Yes, we now know that a Florida Democrat designed this Timeline!

Oh, I'm not sure why my Avengers Review shows up twice.  It looks like RSS Graffiti messed up.  Not Facebook's fault--right?

Scrolling down a little more ...

See that "See More Recent Stories" button?  It appears between my May 8 Avengers post and the April section.  So, what exactly does "more recent" mean in this context?  My latest post is already at the top (the piano one), and you can't get more recent than that!  If I click on the button ...

... I have no idea what happened!  Now I'm in the middle of April for some reason.  Plus, I don't get a good sense that I'm seeing all of the posts.  The layout is so counter-intuitive!  For example, what's that big gray space in the lower right side?  And why is it talking about the 2 "people who like this"?  What is "this"?

And I haven't even gotten to the most annoying thing about Timeline ... the skinniness of the posts.  Check out what happens when you have a medium size picture...

That Writer picture is chopped off.  If you click on it, you can see the whole pic in some kind of popup window, but with the old News Feed, you could usually see the pic without having to click on it.  How about videos?  Let's see...

First, on the left, note the two videos where the arrows point.  Then look on the right, which shows what happens after I click on the videos.  One video works, but the other doesn't.  The broken one says "Video player is too small."  Well, that's just nice.  Now no one can see that video on my page because there isn't enough space.  It used to work.  Does that count?

And if I try expanding the horizontal space to get more room, what happens?

Yes--we get lots and lots of useless gray space around the sides and that one video still doesn't work.

The only thing I like about Timeline is that anyone can access any post no matter how old it is.  The only problem, though, is ... good luck finding it.

My suggestions: make the interface more intuitive and easier to use (both as an Admin and as a page viewer).  Do away with the BUTTERFLY BALLOT format and bring back the usual chronological-order News Feed.  Let there be more space so that we can see pictures without having to click on them and videos can have enough room to function.  Add a search feature that can help a viewer search for a desired post by keyword.  Don't litter the screen with stuff that may make sense to Facebook developers but not to us everyday folk (like quizzical "more recent stories" buttons that act weird and boxes that people Like for no apparent reason).

Timeline as it stands now is confusing and a possible deterrent to viewers.  I hate to say it, but I'm seriously thinking about taking my page somewhere else.  Google+ perhaps?

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Too Good For Boot Camp?

Here I risk sounding cocky, but sometimes it's fun to rant about stuff that really doesn't matter.

This year I tried out for Orson Scott Card's Literary Boot Camp.  The plan was for me to go, learn, and then have something snazzy to put on my cover letters.  "I graduated from Literary Boot Camp."  Additionally, graduates get a boost out of the slush pile of IGMS.  Some people have launched their careers like this, and I figured my time has come.

I hemmed and hawed over what one page excerpt to send them, and I decided to send my flagship work.  This is the one short story that I've edited and had critiqued more than any other story.  It has exciting characters, tight dialouge, and a cool sci-fi backdrop.  I studied the first page as I put it into the envelope.  There was no way they'd reject me.

Well, let me tell you what happened ... I've never had anyone tell me "no" for the opportunity to shell out close to a thousand bucks.  :)

You see, Card doesn't necessarily pick the top 14 writers who apply.  Rather he picks the 14 that he deems would benefit the most from the class.  Here's an excerpt from the rejection email (which is clearly a form-letter):
Mr. Card asked me to make it clear, however, that not being accepted did not mean that your writing was judged “not good.”  His decision was based solely on whether he felt that the writer could gain from and contribute to the type of workshop he runs.  There were, as always, talented writers who were not accepted this year.
What this doesn't tell me is what group I fall into.  Was my story so sucky that I had no chance?  Or was my story just too awesome?

First off, let me say that I understand the form-letter rejection.  They can't go around telling this person, "You suck" and another person, "You're too good for us."  That could lead to hard feelings and issues.  Rather, the response I got was professional and appropriate.

But still, I wish I could know.  If my excerpt was good and blew their socks off, does that mean I can put "Too good for Boot Camp" on my cover letters?  No?  Dang!

If my excerpt was so crappy, even after all that work and editing and receiving critiques, then perhaps I just don't have the stuff.  If I could know this, then I'd happily give up this pipe dream and go play more Star Trek Online.

One consolation is that the rejection letter didn't sting for very long--perhaps an hour or so.  I think not having to pay all that money had something to do with it.  :)

Anyway, congratulations to the 14 who made it into the Camp.  You're one step closer to your dreams, and it will certainly be an awesome experience. 

I'll still be there for the two-day Uncle Orson's Writing Class.  So, if you're there in June, maybe I'll see you there.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Legend Of Korra

With so much trash on the children cable channels, once and a while, it's nice to have a show worth mentioning.  The Last Airbender: The Legend of Korra on Nickelodeon is one of these shows.

This sequel to Avatar: The Last Airbender takes place about 100 years later.  Aang has already died and Korra, a water bender, becomes the next Avatar.  Already having mastered three of the elements, she begins her studies with Aang's son, Tenzin, to master the last element, Air.

They end up in Republic City, which was founded by Aang.  Allowed to thrive, new technologies are introduced and the city currently resembles our own 1920s era, complete with cars and radios.  No Tommy guns, though.  :)

But Republic City isn't safe.  A crime syndicate known as the Tri-benders runs rampant.  Also, many non-benders, confident with the new technologies they created, wish to rise up and start a new era without benders.  This effort is led by the mysterious Amon.  Somehow he has learned the ability to take away bending powers permanently.  Armed with his chi-blocking armies (who can block powers temporarily), he poses a serious threat to our young Avatar.

Just like the original Avatar, this show has the perfect balance of serious adult-ish themes mixed with childlike humor.  In one scene, Korra can be escaping from a frightening situation, and in the next scene she's burping with her friend.

In the five episodes I've seen so far, the writers have already jammed in politics, exciting battles, steampunk, dealing with bullies, humor, an exciting game called Pro Bending which is like Quidditch only with rules that make sense, steampunk, fascism, militarism, and oh ... did I mention steampunk?

Check it out.  I'm glad that my kids are making me watch this with them.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Awake on NBC

Unlike The Firm on NBC, Awake is actually a good mid-season show.  I've been watching this over the past two months, and I'm hooked.  I'm bummed that there's a 90% chance it will be cancelled.  Not Firefly bummed, but I would still like to see another season of this show (or see a satisfying end over the next month or so).

After Michael Britten and his family are involved in a car accident, Michael somehow bifurcates into two alternate realities.  In one, his wife is alive.  In the other, his son survives.  He goes from one world to the next by simply going to sleep.  Which raises the question: which world is real, and which one is the dream?  Or are they both real?  Or both dreams?

The more interesting parts of the show are the ones where his psychiatrists analyze his situation.  Of course, each psychiatrist tells Michael that their world is real and the other one is the dream.

As a cop, somehow clues from one world's case help Michael to solve a case in the other world.  In some cases, these connections only make sense if one world is indeed a dream.  For example, in the trailer above, 611 refers to a parking space in one world and a building in the other world.  There's no rhyme or reason to it, but the clues always pan out -- well, almost always.

This will be another one of those shows that I've enjoyed watching and will miss when they cancel it.  I'm just wondering what NBC could have done differently to attract more viewers to this show.  Did people even know it was on?

Review - The Avengers

The Marvel epic known as The Avengers was this year's mother of all "sequels."  It follows not one, but four different stories: Iron Man (1&2), The Incredible Hulk (2008), Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger.  Nick Fury brings them all together to fight Loki, most awesome villainous brother of Thor.  Add in the Black Widow and Hawkeye, and you have a full ensemble of superheroes.

Expect the jam-packed action, explosions, and comic book violence.  Expect the snappy one-liners and epic battles.  You'll get to see Captain America throw his mighty shield.  The Incredible Hulk turns green and smashes.  Thor swings his hammer and brings down lightning.  Iron Man flies around in his suit and struts his ego.  Hawkeye will hit anything and everything with his arrows.  And Black Widow fights everyone with her legs.

With so many characters, it becomes a big challenge to develop each person sufficiently enough to avoid moving people like pieces in on a board in a dreadful plot.  (Think of your typical Saturday morning "Superfriends" episode.)  But Joss Whedon is the expert on the ensemble cast.  Look at his work with Firefly and Serenity to see how he successfully he can build multiple interesting characters.  In Avengers, he gives just enough from each character so that we know what each one of them wants--and what their weaknesses and strengths are.

Joss also wastes no time bringing people up to speed with annoying flashbacks from other movies.  If you haven't seen the movie Thor, you probably won't recognize Loki in the opening scene.  If you haven't seen any of the four (five including the one sequel) lead-in movies, you probably won't recognize Nick Fury, and will probably wonder where his purple lightsaber is.  But don't worry.  You won't be lost for more than a few minutes.  Once you get your bearings, the rest of the movie is enjoyable.

Well ... except for that one boring part in the middle when they were still gathering the good guys together ... and a scene near the end that at first made my wife and I look at each other and say, "Now that's plain stupid."

Since the 2-D version was hopelessly sold out, we settled for the 3-D version.  The ticket lady felt sorry for us and let us have the student price, which almost paid for the price of the glasses.  There were indeed some cool 3-D effects: in the beginning credits, and in the ending credits.  But nothing spectacular happened in the actual movie.  It wasn't terrible, but a few scenes were a little distracting when the depth didn't seem quite right, or a person moved around another unnaturally.  It's not worth the extra $3.

The movie is surprising kid-friendly, in my opinion.  I did mention the comic book violence worthy of a PG-13 rating.  I only remember one scene with blood, and even there the injury is mostly off-screen.  There is very little cussing; no F-bombs.  There's no sex, though the Hulk may appear partially nude after one of his episodes.  The movie's official rating mentions one drug reference, but I can't remember it.  So, bring the kids if they enjoy this superhero stuff.  Just be prepared to have little Iron Men running around afterward, and you might not want to let them play with anything shaped like a circle for a while.

This is definitely a movie to catch in the theater.  So, go see this movie and have fun.  Stay throughout the entire credits to see not one, but two extra scenes at the end.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Eleven Questions

After a stressful month at work, it appears that I have gone a whole month neglecting my blog.  (And my other writing has suffered as well.)  To make up for it, I will be launching another blogskrieg.  That means more blog entries for you to read!  Excited?

I'll jump start this with these eleven questions Erin Latimer, fellow writer, sent to me a couple of weeks ago.

1)If you got to meet a famous author who would it be?
I would have really liked to have met Isaac Asimov.  The day he died was a sad day, knowing I would never meet him.

If I must answer from the living, I would pick Stephen King.

2)If you got to say only ONE thing to them, what would it be?
I love your stories, and I love your technique.
3)Make up a fake (and short) book jacket with these words included: Dishwater, hedgehog, nylons,wobbly, sausages, dangerous, angry. Okay, GO...

4)Who is your book boyfriend/girlfriend?
I had the biggest crush on Amy from H. M. Hoover's This Time of Darkness.  I must have read that book a million times, and I told people I swore to find that girl and marry her.  I ended up marrying a blond.  Heh!

5)Your publisher is paying for you to go anywhere in the world and write a book about it. Where?
I would actually pick the moon (you know--sci fi and all that).  But realistically, I would like to explore some musical roots.  Send me to Vienna, and then I'll write a book on the unknown story about how Beethoven made friends with an alien who eventually caused his deafness.
6)What is the most HORRIBLE book character you can think of and why?
I'm sure I could think of a more horrible character, and I really love the Foundation series, but I'd have to admit that Hari Seldon from the first book is one of the most uninteresting characters ever written.  I'm happy that Asimov went back to redeem himself by exploring Hari in subsequent prequels, but in the original book Hari simply appears and says, "Here you go - psychohistory."

7) Who is your favorite villain?
There are so many cool ones to choose from.  Sauron comes close to my favorite, but we only get to see him from a distance.  The Baron Harkonnen, though--we get to see up close and personal.  He is absolute power run amok.

Image by Edward Pun
8) What is your favorite book to movie?
Almost every movie comes from a book.  :)   

The Wizard of Oz is one of my all time favorites.

9)  What was the most horrifyingly scary book you've ever read? Why?
I don't seem to get scared by books anymore.  More recently, I got a little creeped out by Watts' Blindsight, but Stephen King takes the cake.  Take your pick: The Shining, Cujo, It, Misery.
10) What book series do you wish you had written?
The Hitchhiker's Guide.  It's my kind of humor.

11)When is the last time a book made you cry and what book was it?
Hmmm ... haven't done that in a while.  My own book The Silver Lining (which is still in revision mode) gets me going, but we authors always have a soft spot for our own characters.  Thinking way back, I remember the last book of the Rama series: Rama Revealed got me going.  More recently, a couple of the vignettes in World War Z got close.